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New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
Column | Former Villanova fanatic watches “Nova Knicks” take down Sixers in NBA Playoffs
By Aidan Kasner, Sports Editor • May 23, 2024
Opinion | Do not arrest peaceful protesters
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

Pitt Bradford student using virtual reality to research PTSD

An+entrance+sign+for+the+University+of+Pittsburgh+Bradford+campus.
Image via the University of Pittsburgh
An entrance sign for the University of Pittsburgh Bradford campus.

A virtual reality program developed by Sofiya Synychych, a Pitt Bradford student, in collaboration with faculty members, offers hope to those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I designed a mindfulness activity within VR. It is a simulated snorkeling activity, but in a submarine, so it’s a little bit more in depth,” Synychych, a senior psychology major, said.

Synychych said the main goal of her research is to determine whether there is a difference between relaxation and stress. She hopes that relaxation will increase and stress will decrease upon completing her VR activity.

“I feel like mindfulness is a really broad activity, so you can do it alone or you can do it in a group, and it’s not something you have to dedicate specific time to like journaling, which takes a bunch of time, and depending on how much focus you have with homework, it can get in the way of things,” Synychych said.

Synychych said her VR experience is made up of two scenes depending on what the subject chooses.

“One of them is fully led by an NPC, so throughout the whole experience you had an NPC guiding you, and you go through a breathing exercise and then a full body scan,” Synychych said. “The second one would be, you go through the breathing exercise, and then you have free roaming time.”

Synychych said the breathing exercises and body scans within her VR experience are something an individual can do for a few minutes while eating or exercising. She added that it is much easier to find time to do these activities than other coping mechanisms.

“Developing those tools is pretty important for coping to self-regulate, so it’s a pretty approachable subject especially with VR, so it was very easy to model that activity,” Synychych said.

Synychych mentioned that mindfulness is a well-researched topic in therapy alongside exposure therapy, but she wanted to find a resource that wouldn’t “freak anyone out.”

“VR is researched for mental health, so you need to first build those stepping blocks of if it can actually do the things I want it to, can it really help with stress. If it is efficient with that, then we can move on to more serious symptoms, but it’s a really new technology in general,” Synychych said.

Synychych said she became inspired to complete this project because VR is a new technology and no one else has really dived into it.

“It’s such an easy segue for mental health and such an easy resource that you don’t have to go to therapy to do those things. There is a cost reduction, because if you have that equipment at school, you could always hook yourself up to it and do it there,” Synychych said. “There are huge benefits to VR.” 

On this project, Synychych collaborated with Gregory L. Page, an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Psychology program, and Jeremy Callinan, the IT Manager at American Refining Group in Bradford.

Page said the idea behind using VR in psychology had taken years to get put into action and the inspiration came from a casual conversation between him and Callinan around a decade ago.

“Jeremy had been contacted by a mental health provider in the community, asking about what Jeremy knew about using VR in mental health treatment, and Jeremy asked me what I knew about VR treatments,” Page said. “At the time, I did not know much about the use of VR other than it was sometimes being used to treat PTSD.”

When initially starting this project, Page said the group worried about having enough time to complete everything. He said they had not taken into account how long it may take to get computer software and hardware to cooperate. 

This has put us behind our timelines a few times,” Page said. “For instance, students in my capstone class last fall were expected to collect and analyze data related to their VR treatment. However, the coordinator of student groups to fully develop the scenario took the entire semester and we were unable to test the treatments.”

Page said this is what led Synychych to working on her project this semester. 

“From conversations with Sofiya, she is using this project to test out the VR research line and whether she wants to pursue it further when she attends grad school,” Page said.

Callinan also mentioned how important it is to understand technology while creating a project like this.

“Technology challenges may not be a significant factor, but understanding the hardware and software used to change parameters in the environment, such as speed, volume, orientation or lighting, and how to troubleshoot in case things don’t work,” Callinan said.

Callinan said through this research project he has learned the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, iterative design and the adaptability required to overcome technical challenges.

“Furthermore, this project has underscored the significance of user-centered design in creating virtual experiences that are both engaging and effective for research purposes,” Callinan said.

Callinan found working with Page and Synychych to be rewarding, and his experience with this project reinforced his beliefs in potential cross-program projects at Pitt-Bradford. This project also broadened Callinan’s perspective on integrating technology into academic projects.

“Witnessing the enthusiasm and innovative spirit of students exploring new ways to apply technology, collaborating in and enjoying the study areas, and working together has been profoundly gratifying,” Callinan said. “This experience has reinforced my belief in the power of collaborative endeavors and the positive impact they can have on education and research.”

About the Contributor
Emily Handrahan, Staff Writer